|c. 1 Million+|
|Related ethnic groups|
|Yoruba, Bini, Igala, Urhobo|
The Itsekiri' (also called the, Isekiri, "lJekri" Itsekri or Ishekiri or Itsekhiri) are an ethnic group of Nigeria's Niger Delta area, Delta State. The Itsekiri presently number just over a million people and live mainly in the Warri South, Warri North and Warri South West local government districts of Delta State on the Atlantic Coast of Nigeria. Significant communities of Itsekiris can be found in parts of Edo and Ondo states and in various other Nigerian cities including Lagos, Sapele, Benin City, Port Harcourt and Abuja. Many people of Itsekiri descent also reside in the United Kingdom, the USA and Canada.
The Itsekiris traditionally refer to their land as the Kingdom of Warri or 'Iwerre' as its proper name (which was named after a leaf called "ewerre" in bini language which signifies goodwill and peace) – which is geographically contiguous to the area covered by the three Warri local government districts. The area is a key centre of Nigeria's crude oil and natural gas production and petroleum refining and the main town Warri (a multi-ethnic metropolis) forms the industrial and commercial nucleus of the Delta State region.
The Itsekiri are a people of mixed ethnic origins who speak a language very closely related to the Yoruba and Igala languages of South Western and central Nigeria  but which has also borrowed some vocabulary, particularly loan words from the Edo (Benin) language in some court terminologies, given the hegemony that the Benin Empire once exercised over the area, Portuguese in trade terminologies, as the Itsekiri were the first people in Nigeria to establish contact with the Portuguese who were exploring the West African coast, and also more recently, English. Although linguistically related to the Yoruba and Igala ethnic groups, however, through centuries of intermingling modern day Itsekiris are of mixed ethnic origins. They are primarily of South-Eastern Yorubaland sub-tribes (Ilaje, Ijebu, Akure, Ikale, Ondo and Owo), but also Edo, Urhobo, Ijo, some Anglo-Scottish and Portuguese descent) and are today mainly Christian (Protestant and Roman Catholic) by religion.
Thus having had six centuries of direct cultural exposure to Western Christianity and other African influences, contemporary Itsekiri language and culture has successfully evolved into a hybrid of the many cultures that have influenced its development. Similarly owing to the complex genetic mix of most Itsekiris over the centuries, many individuals self-identifying as Itsekiri would usually be a complex mix of any of the aforementioned ethnic and racial groups.
In the 15th century, the early Itsekiris adopted a prince Ginuwa (also called "Iginuwa" in Bini Language) from the Kingdom of Benin as a monarch, and quickly coalesced into a kingdom under his rule. Traditionally fishermen and traders, the Itsekiri were among the first in the region to make contact with Portuguese traders. These interactions in the 16th century led the Itsekiri to become primarily Roman Catholic.
The Itsekiri monarchy has continued to the present day, with the coronation of Ogiame Atuwatse II in 1987. The Itsekiri's historical capital is Ode-Itsekiri (also called "big warri" or "Ale iwerre"), though the monarch's main palace is in Warri town the largest city in the area and home to diverse other communities including the Urhobos, Ijaws, Isoko, and many other Nigerian and expatriate groups working in the oil and gas industry.
The Itsekiri, though a minority group within Nigeria, are considered to be a highly educated and affluent ethnic group with a very high rate of literacy and a rich cultural heritage . The Itsekiris have one of the oldest histories of western education in West Africa, and are noted for producing one of its earliest university graduates – the Olu of Warri Kingdom, Olu Atuwatse I, Dom Domingo a 17th-century graduate of Coimbra University in Portugal. Today, many Itsekiris can be found working in the professions particularly medicine, law and the academic professions and in business, trade and industry and were among the pioneers that led the development of the professions in Nigeria during the early-to-mid 20th century .
Culture and religion
The Itsekiris traditionally lived in a society that was governed by a monarchy (the Olu) and council of chiefs who form the nobility or aristocracy. Itsekiri society itself was organised along the lines of an upper class made up of the royal family and the aristocracy – the 'Oloyes and Olareajas' these were mainly drawn from noble houses including the Royal Houses and the Houses of Olgbotsere (Prime Minister or king maker) and Iyatsere (defence minister). The middle class or Omajaja were free-born Itsekiris or burghers. As a result of the institution of slavery and the slave trade there was a third class 'Oton-Eru' or those descended from the slave class whose ancestors had come from elsewhere and settled in Itsekiriland as indentured or slave labourers. In modern-day Itsekiri society the slave class no longer exists as all are considered free-born.
Traditionally, Itsekiri men wear a long sleeved shirt called a Kemeje, tie a George wrapper around their waist and wear a cap with a feather stuck to it. The women wear a blouse and also tie a George wrapper around their waist. They wear colourful head gears known as Nes (scarf) or coral beads. Itsekiris are also famed for their traditional fishing skills, melodious songs, gracefully fluid traditional dances and colourful masquerades and boat regattas.
Before the introduction of Christianity in the 16th century, like many other African groups, the Itsekiris largely followed a traditional form of religion known as Ebura-tsitse (based on ancestral worship) which has become embedded in modern-day traditional Itsekiri culture. Once the dominant form of western Christianity in Itsekiriland for centuries, only a minority of Itsekiris are Roman Catholics today whilst the majority are Protestants notably Baptist and Anglican.
Whilst genetically, the Itsekiris are a complex mixture of the many different ethnicities and races that have settled in their area, however, the Itsekiri language is very closely related to the south-eastern and Ilaje Yoruba dialects and to the Igala. It has also been influenced significantly by the Bini, Portuguese and English languages due to centuries of interaction with people from those nations. However, it remains a key branch of the Yoruboid family of languages even retaining archaic or lost elements of the proto Yoruba language due to its relative isolation in the Niger-Delta where it developed away from the main cluster of Yoruba language dialects.
Unlike nearly all key Nigerian Languages, the Itsekiri language does not have dialects and is uniformly spoken with little or no variance in pronunciation apart from the use of 'ch' for the regular 'ts' (sh) in the pronunciation of some individual Itsekiris, e.g. Chekiri instead of the standard Shekiri but these are individual pronunciation traits rather than dialectal differences. This may be a relic of past dialectal differences. The English language continues to exert a strong influence on the Itsekiri language both in influencing its development and in its widespread usage as a first language amongst the younger generation. Modern standard Yoruba (the variety spoken in Lagos) also appears to be influencing the Itsekiri language partly due to the similarity between both languages and the ease of absorbing colloquial Yoruba terms by the large Itsekiri population living in Western Nigerian cities. Itsekiri is now taught in local schools up to university degree level in Nigeria.
There are a number of semi-autonomous Itsekiri communities such as Ugborodo, Omadino and Obodo whose history predates the 15th-century establishment of the Warri Kingdom. The Ugborodo community claims direct descent from the Ijebu a major Yoruba sub-ethnic group
- Emmanuel Uduaghan (Politician/ Former Governor Delta State)
- Omawumi (Musician)
- Oritse Femi (Musician)
- Ayo Oritsejafor (Clergy)
- Ladi Utieyione (Maritime Consultant)
- Grace Alele-Williams (first female Vice Chancellor of a Nigerian University).
- Amaju Pinnick (Nigeria Football Federation Chairman)
- Amatosero Ani (publisher Effixzzy Magazine, nollywood actress/ producer)
- LizzyGold Onuwaje (Nollywood Actress)
- Festus Okotie-Eboh (Nigerian politician and former Minister of Finance)
- Merchant prince of the Niger delta, Prof Obaro Ikime, Heinemann Educational 1968
- journal of the Anthropological Institute, Old Series Vol. XXVIII by Messrs. R.K. Granville and F.N. Roth
- Prof P.C. Lloyd Ethnographic Survey of Africa, Western Africa, Part XIII (1957)
- A History of Itsekiri, William A Moore
- Merchant Prince of the Niger Delta by Prof Obaro Ikime, Heinemann 1968
- Ethnologue Languages of the World Sixteenth edition 2009
- "CRY, MY BELOVED UGBORODO" A Diary of a Painful Visit to Itsekiri Homeland Made Desolate By Oil Pollution and Inter-Ethnic Conflict; by Oritsegbemi O. Omatete
- Iwe Iṣẹ ti Egwari Ṣẹkiri The Book of Common Prayer in Isekiri
- Urhobo Historical Society article
- Africana Digitization Project article, "The Slave Trade in Niger Delta Oral Tradition"
- Itsekiri US